Appellate Court Rules in Defendants’ Favor in Local Oil Spill Case

November 26, 2019

In September 2010, a 34-inch crude oil pipeline operated by Enbridge Energy, L.P. leaked in Romeoville, Illinois. Following the leak, Enbridge sued both the Village of Romeoville and the adjacent property owner, Oldcastle APG South (dba Northfield Block Company). Enbridge alleged that the Village and/or Northfield failed to properly maintain a water service line which ran underneath its crude oil pipeline. The 33-year-old water line, damaged by the electrical current Enbridge maintained on its pipeline to prevent corrosion, sprung a leak which drilled a hole into the bottom of the Enbridge pipeline.

The Village asserted that it did not owe a duty to maintain the adjacent water service line and asserted affirmative defenses under the Illinois Tort Immunity Act, including lack of notice of the condition of the water line and discretionary immunity. The trial court agreed with the Village’s tort immunity defenses and granted summary judgment in its favor before trial.

At trial against Northfield, Enbridge presented evidence of seven prior leaks over a 15-year period on the water service line and argued that these prior leaks showed the degraded condition of the water service line. Enbridge argued that Northfield should have repaired or replaced the water service line during its 33-year history. The jury agreed and awarded Enbridge $45 million for the damage to its pipeline.

The Appellate Court reversed the jury verdict while affirming the finding in favor of the Village in summary judgment. The Appellate Court found that the trial court abused its discretion in admitting the evidence of the prior leak history, because there was no reasonable similarity between the prior leaks and the leak at issue. In fact, the evidence at trial showed that the water line leak was caused by corrosion from electrical current emanating from Enbridge’s pipeline and was not the result of insufficient maintenance overall on the water service line. The Court also agreed that any evidence of improper installation of the water service line over 30 years ago was barred by the statute of repose (which holds that no action may be brought for any act or omission in the construction of any improvement to real property after 10 years have elapsed). In short, the Appellate Court commented that “[Enbridge’s] case amounts to smoke and mirrors,” and that absent the inadmissible evidence of the prior leak history, Enbridge “has no basis on which to base any of its claims.”

In affirming the grant of summary judgment in favor of the Village, the Appellate Court held that, pursuant to the Tort Immunity Act, the Village did not have actual or constructive notice of the specific defect or dangerous condition that caused the oil leak, and that, therefore, the Village was not liable for the leak. The Court rejected Enbridge’s argument that the prior history of leaks on the water service line was sufficient to put the Village on notice of the deteriorating condition of the water line where it crossed the oil pipeline. The Court reasoned that there was no evidence as to the exact locations or causes of the prior leaks. The Court also cited the Public Works Director’s testimony that he had no knowledge that the water service line was corroding or creating a hole in the oil pipeline. The Court further pointed to the testimony of several village public works employees who observed, just 18 months prior to the Enbridge leak, a portion of the water service line exposed for an unrelated sewer line repair. The public works employees testified that the exposed portion of the water line showed no leaks, corrosion, or other defects. Finally, the Court cited Enbridge’s own civil engineering and metallurgy experts who testified that the cause of the oil leak (stray electrical current from the oil pipeline system corroded the water pipe and a jet of water from the corroded water line entrained with sand and rocks eroded a hole into the underside of the oil pipe) was so “unusual” and “rare” that neither expert had seen such a phenomena in their 40+ years  of experience prior to being hired in this case. The Court also quoted the testimony of Enbridge’s engineering expert, who conceded that “there was ‘[n]o way [the Village] would have known’ about the water leak or its impingement on the oil pipeline.”

The Village was represented by Mike Bersani and Yordana Wysocki. A copy of the Court’s full opinion can be found here. Enbridge v. Village of Romeoville, et al., 2019 IL App (3d) 180060-U

 

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